“OFFBEAT is an events-based producer connecting jazz, improv & experimental music to the world of film and the moving image.” So runs the introduction to the website of Offbeat Fest. Offbeat has produced several events in London this year which explore the world of jazz on film. The latest event was held at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington on Sunday 11 December. The session began with 15 minutes of wonderful live jazz performed by saxophonist Tony Kofi who offered his own mélange of tunes from the soundtrack of Bertrand Tavernier’s classic jazz film ‘Round Midnight. Following a 30th Anniversary screening of the film, Kofi returned with Selwyn Harris of Jazzwise Magazine and the distributor of jazz film soundtrack records. These two took part in a Q&A about the film chaired by the jazz journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre.
This was an interesting and highly enjoyable event hosted in one of my favourite cinemas. I’m not qualified to comment on the jazz itself (except to say that Tony Kofi’s playing and his advice to the young musicians in the audience seemed very fine.) The Q&A was inevitably taken up with the jazz performed in the film and the authenticity of the representation of the quite specific period of music and the lives of the players and the musical milieu. I’ll focus my comments on the film itself.
The only disappointing aspect of the day was that this Anniversary screening of the film was projected from DVD (I’m assuming so based on the image quality). It’s a shame that there isn’t even a Blu-ray available for such a high quality film. For the opening scenes of the film, director Bertrand Tavernier opted for dark and noirish scenes which the DVD struggled to deliver. The remainder of the film worked much better, especially as both the ‘look’ and the mood of the film brightened. A decision was taken to use what I assume are the English subtitles for audiences with hearing impairments. Although the majority of dialogue is actually in English, the delivery style of the central character is quite idiosyncratic. But it is difficult to ignore subs and I did find it a little irritating – though the sheer pleasure the film invokes did overcome such irritations.
‘Round Midnight is a fictionalised story about a legendary American jazz performer who spends time in Paris in 1959. ‘Dale Turner’ is played by the real legendary player Dexter Gordon and the character’s story is based on events associated with the equally ‘real’ Bud Powell and Lester Young. Dale is a saxophonist whose profile developed through building on the work of bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, but who is now suffering from alcohol and drug abuse and shabby treatment as an artist in New York. He decides to take up an offer to play at the ‘Blue Note’ club in Paris where he is watched by a fierce landlady and the club’s owner who both try to keep Dale ‘dry’ and ‘clean’. He escapes their close attention only when he meets a devoted fan – a young French comic-book artist Francis (François Cluzet) who lives with his young teenage daughter Berangere. When Dale moves in with Francis and Berangere he finds a new contentment and re-discovers his full creativity. This in turn will help him to reflect on his life and try to come to terms with the decisions he’s made (he’s around 60 and not in the best of health).
Tavernier is a French director who has drawn on his love of the classical cinemas of Hollywood and France, as well as aspects of British cinema (an unusual trait in French directors of his era). His two bold decisions were to cast Dexter Gordon rather than a film actor in the lead and to insist that as far as possible the jazz performances in the film (which are many more than usual) should be recorded live. This proved to be one of the topics picked up in the Q&A and to be seen as one of the main reasons why this is perhaps the best example of a fiction film with jazz as a central theme. In other films about the same era and personalities, the music is played by jazz professionals and mimed by actors. The Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) was quoted as a film that doesn’t work for jazz fans because the miming removes the sense of live playing. In ‘Round Midnight, all the musicians playing at the Blue Note or in the recording studio are ‘real’ jazz players of note, albeit mainly younger ‘modern’ players interpreting the music of 1959 as arranged by Herbie Hancock – who plays the pianist in the club. Others such as Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin and Freddie Hubbard play in Paris, Lyon and New York. The performance of Dexter Gordon, both as actor and as jazz performer has been very well received. It helps that he was 6′ 6″ tall and that he towers over François Cluzet (often seen rescuing him from bars/hospitals). Gordon in the film speaks like he plays – in a languorous, breathy way (hence the possible need for subtitles). His performance is part of an overall ‘effect’ – so that the film seems to be structured, the camera seems to move and frame the action (in a ‘Scope frame) in ways which suggest a jazz composition. I’m not sure I understand jazz well enough to appreciate this observation, but Tavernier himself quotes Michael Powell:
When Michael saw ‘Round Midnight he said that he understood jazz not by what the characters were saying but by the structure of the film and the way the camera moved. He got the emotion of jazz. (Interview in the Guardian, 2002)
I’m on safer ground with Powell and there is a direct Powell connection in the film. At one point in the recording studio, one of the players tells an anecdote from Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) – which is a film (and a folk tale) about an artist eventually driven to their death through their obsession with their art. The anecdote is actually about two of the supporting characters, but all three are enmeshed in the tensions and conflicts that develop between artists, their art and the commercial demands of the art form. Coincidentally, The Red Shoes is also the favourite film of Powell’s other ardent supporter Martin Scorsese who appears in ‘Round Midnight as Dale’s sleazy and ruthless US manager/promoter in New York. What all this points to, for me, is Tavernier’s wish to place his love of jazz in the context of his own cinephilia and more general interest in the French-American cultural exchange. There is a sense in which the film consciously begins in a noir world of dingy hotels, dark alleyways and clubs. This is a noir world shot in a Paris studio with set designs by Alexandre Trauner, the veteran Hungarian migrant who entered the French film industry in the early 1930s and designed many of the classic ‘poetic realist’ films which were the precursors of film noir in Hollywood. After Dale Turner moves in with Francis, ‘Round Midnight makes much more use of location shooting around the streets of Paris (and one trip to the seaside). These sequences are closer to the freedom of la nouvelle vague – which was in full swing around the time of the setting of ‘Round Midnight. I was reminded of the scenes featuring a Paris hospital in Cléo de 5 à 7 as Francis dashes from one hospital to another searching for Dale. Tavernier’s regular DoP Bruno De Keyser handles both camera styles with aplomb. It’s not too difficult to see why Michael Powell related the look and feel of the film to the emotion of jazz. I should note that New York streets also feature and that some of the Paris scenes may actually have been shot in Lyon (Tavernier’s home city.)
In the trailer from Warner Bros. several of the above points are evident – as is the struggle Tavernier has had with his Anglophone films. The voiceover in the trailer is there to speak to the American audience and Tavernier becomes an ‘international director’. But despite this, ‘Round Midnight is a French film about the great art music of America.